Are Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rising or Falling?

Fleur_Jaouault_New_Energy_SolarFleur Jouault27 September 2019

Each quarter, the Department of the Environment and Energy (the Department) publishes estimates of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions (Quarterly Emissions Update) in order to:

  • meet Australia’s reporting commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC);
  • track progress against Australia’s emissions reduction commitments; and
  • inform policymakers and the public.

Lately, the release of this data has been accompanied by media interviews with Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, the Hon Angus Taylor MP, where the journalist states that the data reveals another quarter contributing to an increasing annual trend and Minister Taylor strongly denies that this is the case. From the general public’s point of view, it is hard to understand how data can be interpreted so differently. In this insight we examine the actual data, the federal government’s interpretation of the data, and the arguments against the government’s perspective.

Taken from the excel database1 provided by the Department, the graph below sets out the quarterly data (actual unadjusted) since 2009 excluding Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF).

We have chosen to exclude LULUCF because the measure of how forestry and land-use activities absorb or reduce greenhouse gases is thought to be unreliable and subject to manipulation2 and it considerably skews the picture of total emissions over the longer term. This position is consistent with global research groups like Climate Action Tracker3.

"…In the last year there is a 0.6% increase but it was more than accounted for by the very strong growth in LNG exports that are reducing global emissions,…"

Even including LULUCF, the latest quarterly data from March 2019 shows a decline in emissions over the previous quarter, while the 12 months to end of March 2019 show an increase over the 12 months to end March 20184.

Over a longer period, the annual trend data, which smoothes short term and seasonal fluctuations, illustrates the broader trend in emissions excluding LULUCF5 more clearly. The contributors to annual emissions6 are set out in the table below the graph.

So, what are the key areas of dispute between the way that the Minister sees the information and the way journalists and other commentators view the information?

Who Says What About the Emissions Data?

The Position of the Coalition Government

The basis for Minister Taylor’s claims that emissions data actually depicts a decline in Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Emissions levels rests on the impact of the extraction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and its subsequent use in the countries to which Australia exports it.

In the Minister’s media release accompanying the release of the Quarterly Emissions Update, the increase in Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions is attributed primarily to the increase in LNG exports, which have increased 18.8% over the year to March 2019.

As the Quarterly Emissions Update describes, for the LNG industry, emissions occur during exploration, extraction, production, processing, and pipeline transmission and distribution. Emissions also occur during the final conversion of gas to LNG at liquefaction plants where gas is cooled to -161°C to become liquid for export. Growth in LNG has also strongly impacted fugitive emissions due to flaring and venting of methane and carbon dioxide.

In presenting the latest emissions data, Minister Taylor advocates for the data to be considered after excluding the increase in LNG exports. The reason, the Minister argues, that LNG exports should be excluded is that substituting gas for coal in electricity generation produces substantial greenhouse gas emission savings of up to 50%7 . Accordingly, Australia’s LNG exports are contributing to a global improvement in emissions and Australia should be given credit internationally for the carbon dioxide savings it helps other nations achieve8.

On this basis, he claims, emissions would have declined 0.3%9 in the March quarter.

“In the last year there is a 0.6% increase but it was more than accounted for by the very strong growth in LNG exports that are reducing global emissions,” Mr Taylor said10.

The Counter Arguments

A number of commentators take issue with this interpretation on the following bases.

UN Agreed Reporting Framework Does Not Countenance Credit for Scope 3 Emissions

Many point to the globally agreed framework for recording and reporting emissions data - the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - which counts emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the country where they are burned. The framework clearly delineates between domestic emissions reported in the quarterly data provided by the Department and scope three emissions, that is, emissions that take place overseas from exports11. Substituting lower carbon fuels are gains recognised in the countries that make those changes.

Argument Relies on Gas Replacing Coal – Which is Not Always the Case

Richie Merzian, director of the Australia Institute’s Climate & Energy Program, argues that there is no clear evidence that Australia’s increasing LNG exports are reducing global emissions because the use of LNG does not necessarily replace coal.

“Take Japan, one of our major export recipients in terms of gas. It’s still in the process of shifting from nuclear post-Fukushima, so it’s therefore going from a low greenhouse gas emissions fuel source to a high one.”12

If We Take Credit for Gas, Shouldn’t We Take Responsibility for Coal

Richie Merzian goes on to also argue that if we are trying to receive credit for instances in which LNG may reduce the emissions of our trading partners, shouldn’t Australia take responsibility for fueling the climate crisis as the world’s largest exporter of coal?13

In a similar vein, Matt Drum from Ndevr Environmental, an emissions tracking organisation, says of Minister Taylor’s reasoning “I don’t think you can prosecute that argument unless you also take into account our coal exports, which have a counter effect.”14

Australia is responsible for one-fifth of the world’s thermal coal exports and more than one-half of the world’s metallurgical coal exports15.

Federal Policy is Not Being Implemented to Reduce Emissions

Only two sectors of industry that contribute to emissions data have recorded decreases. They are the electricity sector where, as the Department explains in the Quarterly Emissions Update, there has been a 0.7% reduction in brown coal consumption, a 23.1% reduction in gas consumption, and a corresponding 28.0% increase in supply from renewable resources. The second sector is agriculture, reflecting a decline in livestock populations attributable to drought conditions resulting in poor grazing conditions and the high cost and availability of grain, as well as the floods in Queensland which lead to a loss of approximately 600,000 cattle.

Mark Butler, Labor’s spokesperson for energy and climate change argues that federal policy has played no role in combatting emissions because electricity has declined as more renewables come online, largely in response to state government policy initiatives, and agriculture has declined as a result of the drought16.

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